Dec 142014
 
builders-on-construction-site

One of the longest running large scale 3D printing projects is based at the UK’s Loughborough University where since 2007 researchers have been working on developing the technology’s applications to the construction industry.

Loughborough’s technology, named Freeform, offers faster and more flexible ways of casting concrete and building structures using a computer controlled concrete pouring system. For property developers the attraction is cheaper buildings while for architects the technologies offer more innovative structures.

In late November the team announced a venture with Swedish building company Skanska SA to develop the world’s first commercial concrete printing robot.

The venture, which will include collaborations with companies including iconic UK architects Foster and Partners, Buchan Concrete, Scandinavian contracting giant ABB and Lafarge Tarmac, aims to have the first commercially available robot printer available by mid 2016.

Competing with the European venture is Chinese company WinSun who earlier this year showcased its 3D printer capable of producing ten houses every 24 hours. An interesting aspect of WinSun’s project is that the printing rig was build out of existing parts and controlled by an off the shelf Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing software system.

While the Chinese results are relatively crude, they show the potential for the technology. The economics of the WinSun project are enhanced by using waste building site material for the concrete which only increases the attraction of these machines to cost conscious property developers.

The Chinese and British are not just the only countries working on these technologies, in the Netherlands the 3D Print Canal House shows how techniques and materials are being developed while in the United States the University of Southern California’s Contour Crafting project is looking at how to use large scale 3D printing in a range of construction scenarios including building space colonies.

While using moon dust to build structures in space is some way off, both Freeform and WinSun show what will become commonplace on building sites in the near future.

These technologies promise to radically change architecture and the building industry with ramifications for jobs and the economics of building structures.  3D printing buildings is another example of how industries and employment will be very different by the middle of this century.

For businesses, it’s another example of how managers have to prepare for very different marketplaces.

Builder image courtesy of thesaint through Freemimages.com

Nov 172014
 
apple-pay-screens

Has Apple Pay legitimised mobile payments? It appears so, reports the New York Times. Since the launch of Apple’s payments service, Google and other mobile payment providers are claiming usage has doubled with customers exploring the systems.

If this is true, it’s similar to how Apple legitimised the USB port in 1998 with the release of the iMac.

Prior to the iMac the USB port was a bit of an oddity, on most PCs the sockets sat unused and the few devices available on Windows computers worked reliably, as Bill Gates himself found out during a live demonstration at the 1998 Comdex show.

Unlike Apple Pay, the move to USB on Macs wasn’t welcome and it was a high stakes decision by Steve Jobs given that Apple’s existence was still precarious and its user base was still made up of largely of true believers who had been through years in the wilderness with the company.

Those users also had many thousands of dollars invested in Apple Device Bus (ADB) devices, all of which became redundant with the move to USB. Many customers at the time swore this was the last straw and they would move to Windows PCs.

Apple’s users didn’t carry out their threats and stayed with the company whose move to USB turned out to be a winner for the entire computer industry.

For Apple USB’s success meant their customers were no longer locked into a proprietary technology, for manufacturers they were able to start moving off archaic serial and parallel ports while for Microsoft the shift meant a better range of more reliable devices — although their operating systems struggled with USB until the release of the far more stable Windows XP.

It appears in this respect Apple Pay is repeating history in giving a boost to a technology that has been struggling to find traction in the market place.

The difference this time is that the payments industry is a far bigger market with far more implications for the broader economy than the computer peripherals segment.

If Apple raise the boat on payment systems, there are some incumbent businesses who are going to find themselves in a very different marketplace in five years time.

Nov 012014
 
google-larry-page-sergei-brin-driverless-car

A fascinating interview with Google founder Larry Page in the Financial Times raises the question of whether the current startup mania lacks imagination.

Certainly looking at the lists of many startup competitions, incubator admissions and accelerator programs, it’s hard not to be depressed at the number of ‘platform plays’ aimed at clipping the tickets of an established industry.

If anything, it’s encouraging the Google founder is looking at doing more interesting things than taking a few dollars clipping the tickets off industry. We can, and should, aspire to do better.

Oct 242014
 
innovation

“Technology is part of the solution, but it’s also part of the problem,” says Brian Solis, the

Brian Solis describes himself as a digital anthropologist who looks for how businesses are being disrupted. We talk about digital darwinism, how businesses can approach change and the role of individual changemakers within organisations.

“My primary responsibility is to study disruptive technology and its impacts on business,” says Solis. “I look at emerging technology and try to determine which one is going to become disruptive.”

To identify what technologies are likely to disrupt businesses it’s necessary to understand the human factors, Solis believes.

One of the problems Solis sees is the magnitude of change required within organisations and particularly the load this puts on individuals, citing the story of one pharmaceutical worker who tried to change her employer.

“Her mistake was thinking this was a short race, she thought everyone could see the opportunity inherent in innovation and change when in fact it was a marathon. She burned herself out”

“What that means is to bring about change you really have to dig yourself in because you’re ready to do your part. You can’t do it alone, you have to do change in small portions and win over the right people.”

Sep 252014
 
512px-Steve_Jobs_and_Bill_Gates_(522695099)

It’s been a tough week for Apple, after the spectacular launch of the iPhone 6 the company has had two humiliating and worrying setbacks that indicate standards may be slipping at the once untouchable giant.

The iPhone 6 Plus should have been a triumph, and for a while it was, but the news the phones bend and distort has tarnished the product.

Compounding the bendable phone problem are the claims users are being charged to replace their damaged handsets.

On its own this problem might have been manageable like the iPhone4’s antenna problems in 2010, however today’s news that the latest iOS8 has had to be withdrawn after user complaints indicates a sloppiness has crept into the company.

Both problems, or all three problems if it turns out the stories of Genius Bars charging to replace damaged phones, show Apple isn’t paying attention to detail to the degree they’ve become known for.

The botched iOS8.0.1 rollout is sloppy work while the bendable phone is very much an uncharacteristic lapse in design.

For a premium brand with a large dose of arrogance, shipping defective products is both an embarrassment and damages the company’s name.

This inattention to detail is horribly reminiscent of Microsoft’s horror days at the turn of the Century where the company repeatedly rushed incomplete products to market — Windows ME being the most notorious example.

So maybe we are seeing Apple become the new Microsoft and the iPhone 6 Plus as the Windows ME of our time.

That doesn’t mean we’ll see the end of Apple, Microsoft is still a huge corporation, but it may be the tech industry’s most iconic business is beginning to lose its edge.

Image of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates via Wikipedia

Sep 072014
 
apple-iPhone5s-5Up_Features_iOS8_PRINT

Unsurprisingly the hype ahead of Tuesday’s media announcement by Apple is reaching a crescendo, with the consensus being that a smart watch will be the day’s main announcement.

The constant stream of targeted leaks by Apple to friendly outlets is quite tiring, however one thing that will be fascinating if all the stories are true is the software the device will run.

As Microsoft have discovered, the idea of running the same operating system across all devices just doesn’t work.

While how users interact with the devices will be the main factor, the most immediate problem will be power. If Apple Insider’s report that prototypes need to be recharged twice a day is true, then the limitations of smaller batteries are going to be considerable and software is going to have to be much more stingy with power usage.

The other big challenge for the iWatch, if that’s what it’s called, is the entire global watch market is a tiny fraction of the smartphone industry so expectations Apple’s new product will replace smartphones and tablets as a huge growth driver for the company are probably misguided.

So it’s good for Apple and its acolytes that the iPhone6 will probably be announced as well. If this has the features expected, then its likely to give the company’s slowing smartphone sales a boost.

Regardless of what’s announced on Wednesday, Apple does have the luxury of being one of the most profitable and richest companies on the planet. if a smartwatch is the major new product they have the resources and time to finesse the product and its software.

 

Aug 242014
 
Webvan-home-delivery

At the peak of the dotcom mania in 1998 delivery services were all the go, those days are back reports Claire Cain Miller in the New York Times.

“We’re really well funded, so that is not something we’re as worried about,” Aditya Shah, Instacart’s general manager says. “Growth is the most important factor.”

This is the classic Silicon Valley Greater Fool model, where the aim is to get as many customers as possible to make the business attractive to a cashed up large corporation.

It might work, but the odds of being an Amazon or Salesforce – both companies have barely made a profit in the decade and a half they’ve been running – is unlikely.

One of the big problems is that delivery doesn’t scale, the ‘last mile’ problem of getting the goods to the customer remains the most complex and expensive part of the process.

Drones may solve the labour cost problem and sophisticated algorithms from companies like Uber may make the process more efficient but it’s unlikely an ad-hoc delivery service can ever scale to the degree these entrepreneurs project, unlike the post office and courier services where the system is built around predictable delivery routines.

Uber is the company that validated the model of today’s delivery startups, as Miller mentions;

“Meanwhile, venture capitalists joke that every other entrepreneur they meet pitches an “Uber for X,” bringing goods and services on demand: laundry (Washio), ice cream (Ice Cream Life), marijuana (Eaze) and so on.”

It’s hard to see how the current craze of delivery startups will end any better than the Webvans and dozens of other services that soared and crashed in the late 1990s, however business models are changing and it may be one of these will find the formula that works in the new economy.